Thursday, January 19, 2006

You Don’t Have to Live Here

I read Natasha Radojcic’s other novel over Christmas. While Homecoming has gotten more attention, You Don’t Have to Live Here is not to be missed either. Homecoming which, I believe, was written second but published first, is easier to read and easier to take—as the author told me, people find it easier to read a story about a bad boy than a bad girl.

But if bad girls interest you, read the inspirational and unsentimental novel You Don’t Have to Live Here. It tells the story of young Sasha, a girl being raised by her beautiful mother in (the former) Yugoslavia in the seventies and eighties. The novel begins a little slowly and is generally a bit harder to read than Homecoming. The latter takes place in a single day and has a seamless narrative structure. You Don’t Have to Live Here, a more ambitious, book is also more fragmented, more episodic. But, from the moment Sasha goes to Cuba things pick up and accelerate through the rest of this short great book. The Cuban interlude is fascinating in its own right for its Alice-in-the-looking-glass look behind the iron curtain: Sasha’s uncle is appointed the Yugoslavian ambassador to Cuba and, in accompanying him, she attains a level of luxury and celebrity she had not had at home; her mother even dances with Fidel!

Upon her return, however, Sasha’s hard luck bounces her from family to family, mishap to mishap. Her mother develops terminal cancer and she is left to fend for herself. In Greece, her father’s benign neglect sends her into the arms of some handsome American soldiers and, in part because of them, she takes her dream of moving to America seriously. The scene of her joyously shooting a pistol into the air at her own good-bye party is one of the most poignant and terrifying in the book: desperate to fit in, to do the normal thing, she always manages be just a little bit off key. Radjocic conveys the loneliness of boldly plunging in only to find one has mistepped, of having to carry on anyway, with tremendous sympathy. When gets to New York, she finds a job—but not just any job. Working at the Pink Pussycat in the Village, Sasha befriends dealers and strippers while polishing the sex toys in the window. (This part of the story at least, is autobiographical and, alas, locked behind the Times’ firewall.)

In an interview on WNYC (scroll down), the host asked her what she wanted people to learn or get from her work and she gave a great answer: that you don’t have to live here, that, however bad things are, you can always take steps to make changes. I loved that play with the title and was devastated and very moved to find the title phrase appearing in the book in a much more melancholy context. Lovely.

But the end of the book made it for me. So read it all the way through and tell me if you don't agree. It’s short and great.

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